LINCOLN: AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY By Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, & Peter W. Kunhardt, Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pp., $50.
LINCOLN, THE WAR PRESIDENT Edited by Gabor S. Boritt, Oxford University Press, 242 pp., $23.00.
THE Civil War book bonanza that began in the mid-1980s continues unabated. The books range from political and military biographies to predictable blood-and-bravery battle studies to innovative accounts of neglected themes: guerrilla fighting and the role of women and black troops, for example.
Nothing attracts Americans more, however, than Abraham Lincoln - a national icon, distant, melancholic, and unfathomable. So he remains, despite the 900 magnificent pictures that dominate the lavish "Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography," by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. The book is a spinoff of a forthcoming television documentary. This expensive Christmas-gift book satisfies the eye but not, unfortunately, the mind.
For serious insights, there is "Lincoln, the War President," edited by Gabor S. Boritt. Here, in seven lectures given during the past decade at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, is the cream of traditional American Civil War scholarship. The authors include five Pulitzer Prize winners. With breadth and grace, they address questions about Lincoln's place in history.
The book begins with "The Shadow of a Coming War," by Robert V. Bruce, who asks: Why was the danger largely ignored? Decades of rage, warnings, and denunciations had pointed to an eventual conflict. Yet the ambiguities and political maneuvering behind these warnings weakened their credibility.
Yes, Lincoln was mistakenly optimistic before 1861, but in "Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender," James M. McPherson finds him thereafter to have been a wise strategist, who progressed from attempts to conciliate Southern moderates to the bitter realization that victory demanded total war and unconditional surrender. Hence, he announced the emancipation proclamation, a blow at slavery, the Confederacy's weakest link. The necessities of war, McPherson contends, had made Lincoln not only th e embodiment of national purpose, but also a revolutionary who destroyed the Old South. Would he, however, have followed through in a post-war South of angry whites and newly freed blacks? McPherson doesn't address the question.
If McPherson defines Lincoln in narrowly American terms, Carl N. Degler looks to Europe and Canada for nation-builders against which to measure him in "One Among Many: The United States and National Unification." Degler contends that the South's isolation and self-interest as a slave-holding economy had permitted only a loose confederation. "The Civil War," he asserts, "was not a struggle to save a failed Union, but to create a nation that until then had not come into being." He does not hesitate to comp are the democratic Lincoln and the authoritarian Otto von Bismarck. Was not their role in 19th-century history essentially similar?
In "The Emancipation Moment," David Brion Davis also invokes global history to modify our traditionally reverential view of Lincoln. Slave emancipation is customarily seen as the instant granting of freedom. Not so, Davis contends. It was a hesitant process, with doubts and skepticism from both North and South, and anxiety about the former slaves' inherent "sinfulness" and "sloth."
Is the aggressive use of power over weaker countries still characteristic of the United States? This is Kenneth M. Stampp's charge against Lincoln's opposition to Southern independence in "One Alone? The United States and National Self-determination." No doubt Lincoln believed in self-determination for, say, Hungary or Poland. But not for the South. Stampp sees slave emancipation as a mere rationalization for Lincoln's action.
Not so, contends Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in "War and the Constitution: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt." He defends both men against charges of abuse of power. Both faced terrible dangers; both piloted the Republic to survival; neither gloried in his power; and neither used it out of ambition or lust for power.
In "War Opponent and War President," Gabor S. Boritt concludes by analyzing Lincoln's ambivalence regarding war, which he sincerely hated. Yet preserving the Union came first, no matter the cost. This mixture of hesitation, righteousness, and aggressiveness is hardly unknown in American foreign policy.
These essays present the historical discipline as it should be, not merely a recital of facts, but a presentation of the ideas behind those facts, the ideas that help readers understand where we were and also where we are today.